May 3rd, 2009

La Loge

Yeats, Cycle A

Three plays last night: The Countess Cathleen, The Cat and the Moon, and On Baile's Strand.

Very strong acting--stronger than the night before. Last night energy? Longer (and more narratively coherent ) plays? I've gotten used to the actors and their little ways? A bit of each, perhaps. Terry Donnelly, Friday night's comic whirlwind and decent wife, played the hell out of the Countess. She's got a steel in her that made the Countess's last speech (which is really very sentimental) almost unbearably moving. And Patrick Fizgerald, who showed a fine comic timing in Friday's The Pot of Broth, would have been picking pieces of scenery out of his teeth after two, count 'em, two mad, half-comic, half-tragic beggars in a row, except that there wasn't any scenery to speak of, and that well-battered by the props department.

The Countess Cathleen is one of Yeats's most famous plays, and there's a reason for that. The characters are individuals as well as types, the plot actually makes logical sense, and the emotional logic is absolutely compelling. It's intensely Catholic, but the strain of Catholicism that grows from folklore logic rather than doctrine and theology. During the great famine, when all are starving and all are poor, two merchants come to the door of a poor man and offer to buy his soul. He and his son accept gleefully, and make a little extra on the side by going around the country shilling for the two demons. Set against them is the Countess Cathleen, who ends up selling her soul (worth many hundreds of thousands of crowns) so that her people may be saved.

What Yeats really captures is how extreme hardship and desperation brings out the worst and the best in individuals. Moral compromise is not possible. You have to resist looking out only for your own interests, and may the devil take the hindmost (literally, in this case) or give in. I did wonder, briefly, why the devils didn't realize that gold spent on the soul of a "sapphire-eyed saint" bound and determined on martyrdom is gold spent in vain. But then, folklore devils are never very bright.

Really, I can't think what would have measured up to Cathleen. On Baile's Strand, a retelling of the death of Cuchulain, hero of Ulster, is a good and tightly-woven play, but the people we went with, who weren't familiar with the source material, were entirely lost throughout most of the second half. They certainly got that the young man Cuchulain was being forced to fight was his son, and that both father and son were ignorant of this important fact--Yeats signalled it so loudly it's hard to believe the characters in the play didn't hear. But my friends didn't get why they had to fight, even though they clearly would rather have not, since Yeats left most of the exposition of the political part of the plot to Concobar, who was boring and circuitous, and two tramps (one blind, one a fool, with feathers in his hair), who were eliptical and heavily symbolic. Perhaps he expected his audience to know it all already, good Irish Renaissance Men (and women) that they were. I don't think I would have minded if the poetry had been better. Indeed, Cuchulain's closing speeches were prime, but they were in the vein of too little, too late, and I found myself oddly unmoved by the classically tragic death of the greatest man in Ulster.

Also, those tramps got up my nose. I understand why they wanted something funny between the two tragedies, but The Cat and the Moon is a bitter, symbolic, existential kind of comedy featuring a blind man and a lame man, and really filled my bitter, symbolic, existential, two-tramps quota for the evening.

So that's the Yeats cycle. I'm very glad I went, and would go again.

And now I have to do laundry and attack much back-logged business. Because I'm behind again. Still.